The Perfect “What to Eat When Pregnant” Diet

Good nutrition is essential for your developing baby. Learn just what you should be eating over the next nine months.

Pregnancy is a phenomenal yet normal physiological process that comes with some unique nutritional requirements. What you eat throughout your pregnancy really does matter, as you are eating not only to provide optimal nutrition for your developing fetus, but also to support your increased metabolism, and organ growth. Not only are you what you eat, but so is your baby. And what better reason than that for eating incredibly well!

Watching Your Weight

Building a healthy baby requires about 300 extra calories per day assuming normal activity and more for women who exercise. In those extra calories, the pregnant woman needs up to 50 percent more of most vitamins and minerals and an additional 10 grams of protein a day for fetal and placental growth, expanded maternal extra cellular fluid, breasts, and uterus.

This additional caloric intake should be sufficient to attain a weight gain of approximately 22 to 28 pounds in women of normal weight. If you’re underweight before you become pregnant, a 30 to 35 pound weight gain is appropriate.

Weight gain is usually minimal during the first trimester; most women gain between two to four pounds. Weight gain increases at a rate of .75 to .88 pounds per week during the second and third trimesters. The mother’s rate of weight gain is the most reliable sign that she is eating the right amount of food to support the growing baby.

Wonder where all that weight is going?

Baby7-8 lbs.
Placenta1-2 lbs.
Uterus2 lbs.
Amniotic Fluid1.5 – 2 lbs.
Breasts1 lb.
Blood Volume2.5 – 3 lbs.
Fat5 lbs.
Tissue, Fluid4-7 lbs.
Total24 – 30 lbs.

Women who are underweight or have poor nutritional status would benefit from meeting with a dietitian to review their diets. More severe medical conditions, such as gestational diabetes, hypertension, and preeclampsia will require further modifications of diet listed here. All pregnant women should work closely with their care providers to ensure they are getting proper nourishment.

What if you’re overweight? Trying to lose weight while pregnant is very risky, since there is no way to guarantee the baby won’t be deprived of essential nutrients. While it may be hard to watch the scales rise, put weight loss plans on the back burner during pregnancy. On the other hand, if your weight gain is much greater than the typical rate of increase for two months in a row, have a registered dietitian monitor your intake for a few days to see if too many empty calories—such as extra fat and sugar—are responsible.

Getting Adequate Vitamins and Minerals

Multi-nutrient vitamin supplements are recommended for pregnant women to cover the increased need for folic acid, vitamins B-6, C and D, and calcium, copper, iron, and zinc. Folic acid (one of the B-vitamins that is also referred to as folate) is the “super star” vitamin for proper brain and nervous system development for the growing fetus. In addition, folate is of great importance for erythropoiesis (red blood cell formation). The recommended intake is 600 to 800 micrograms of folic acid a day. Although folic acid will be in your prenatal vitamin, it’s wise to include folate-rich foods in your diet. You can find folate in dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, liver, dried beans and peas, peanut butter, and asparagus.

Both you and your fetus also need additional amounts of iron during pregnancy. Iron is important for building your blood supply, and your baby needs it to stockpile for future use. Since human milk and cow’s milk are both low in iron, your baby will be able to draw upon a banked supply for the first three to six months of his life. For this reason, 30 to 60 milligrams of supplemental iron are recommended during pregnancy. Excellent dietary sources of iron are dried fruits, spinach, liver, dark green leafy vegetables, and sardines.

Calcium is needed for the proper calcification of your growing baby’s bones and teeth, which is why you should be sure to drink at least four cups of skim milk or the equivalent amount (i.e., 1 ounce of cheese, 1 cup plain yogurt, or 1 1/2 cups of cottage cheese) of dairy products each day during your second and third trimesters. If you don’t eat enough calcium, your body will automatically draw it from your bones—making sure your baby gets what he needs, but at the expense of your skeleton. The recommended intake for calcium is 1,200 milligrams per day.

The other vitamins and minerals that are required during pregnancy can be met by a well-balanced diet that contains the appropriate increase in nutrient-dense calories combined with a prenatal vitamin/mineral complex.

Choosing the Right Foods in the Right Amounts

A well-balanced diet for pregnancy should contain these approximate amounts from four basic food groups:

1. From the meat, fish, poultry and egg group: approximately three two- to three-ounce servings of fish, poultry, lean meat, eggs, beans, lentils, nut butters (i.e. peanut, almond, cashew, tahini, soy nut butter), seeds, and nuts.

2. From the dairy group: approximately four one-cup servings of milk or the equivalent (i.e., 1 ounce of cheese, one cup plain yogurt, or 1.5 cups of cottage cheese).

3. From the vegetable and fruit group: This group is divided into two main categories—those that contain large amounts of vitamin C and those that contain large amounts of beta carotene which can be converted to vitamin A as the body needs it. You should get one to two half-cup servings of fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C.

Rich in Vitamin C

Brussels SproutHoneydew Melon
Collard GreensOrange
Green PepperPapaya
Mustard GreensStrawberry

To meet your vitamin A requirement each day, have two half-cup servings from the beta-carotene rich fruits and vegetables. To this list add one more serving of vegetable of your choice.

Rich in Beta Carotene

Sweet PotatoesWatermelon
 Winter Squash

4. From the bread, cereal, dried beans, peas, and legumes group: select six to eleven servings. A serving means one slice of bread, or ¼ cup cooked dried beans, peas, or legumes. A dry cereal serving should measure ¾ of a cup and cooked cereal ½ cup.

Modifying for Vegetarians

If you are a vegetarian and avoid dairy products, you may need to take a calcium supplement. It is very unlikely that you can obtain sufficient dietary calcium needed for pregnancy from plant sources without using calcium-fortified foods. These days, it is relatively easy to find calcium-fortified juices, cereals, and soy milks on your grocery store shelves.

Moms-to-be can easily meet their protein requirements by substituting one cup of cooked dried beans, lentils or peas, or four tablespoons of natural nut butters (peanut butter, cashew, Tahiti, soy, etc.), or 1/4 cup of nuts or seeds for a two- to three-ounce serving of meat.

Although you may not be a vegetarian in the pure sense, you may have cut back on you intake of red meat, a primary source of iron. In this case, replace meat with servings of iron-rich foods such as dried beans, peas and lentils, iron-enriched cereals and breads, and dried fruits.

Easing Nausea

During the early weeks of pregnancy, nausea and vomiting—often caused by your body’s reaction to the pregnancy hormones and/or an inadequate amount of vitamin B-6 or glycogen (a natural sugar that’s stored primarily in the liver)—sometimes makes it difficult to obtain adequate nutrition.

If nausea is preventing you from getting adequate nutrition, talk to your doctor about using Vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine). In one placebo-controlled study, women who received 25 milligrams of vitamin B-6 every eight hours found significant relief compared to the women receiving a look-alike placebo. Since nausea most often occurs on an empty stomach, eat small but frequent meals during the day, and try to eat them slowly. If nausea is especially troublesome in the morning, eat a protein snack before you go to bed at night. Protein takes longer to digest and should help take the edge off morning queasiness.

Combating Constipation

If constipation plagues you, combat it by eating foods high in fiber. Whole-grain breads, cereals, and crackers usually do the trick. Look for the words “whole,” “stone-ground,” or “cracked” to be sure you’re selecting a whole-grain product. Raw fruits such as apples, pears, grapes, apricots, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, peaches, nectarines, and dried fruits are all great sources of fiber. Raw vegetables are also a great source of fiber.

And don’t forget fluids. Drink eight glasses of liquids each day. Begin your day with a hot cup of water with one teaspoon of fresh lemon juice or a pregnancy-safe tea.

If you were eating a healthy diet before pregnancy, these simple modifications will ensure you’re getting the nutritional requirements important for you and your unborn baby. And if your diet was less than optimal before conception? There is no better time than pregnancy to begin a healthy new way of eating!

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